A brief account of her life... by Martha Nell Smith

There is no history. There is only biography.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson (1839)

Though her intense and constant relationship with Emily Dickinson spanned five decades, forty years (from the late 1840s until the poet's death in 1886), and though Dickinson sent her substantially more writings than any other correspondent and changed at least one poem at her behest, a book-length biography of Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson (called "Susie" as a girl; "Sue" as a young and middle-aged woman; "Susan" in her later years) is yet to be written. Born nine days after Emily Dickinson on December 19, 1830, about ten miles away from Amherst in Old Deerfield, Massachusetts, and dying May 12, 1913, almost twenty-seven years to the day after Emily, Susan and Emily have been called "nearly twins" by some (Mudge 93), and indeed they enjoyed many mutual passions for literature, especially poetry, and for gardening, recipes, music, nature.

Susan was the youngest of six children, born between 1815 and 1830 to Thomas and Harriet Arms Gilbert. By the time she was eleven years old, Susan was orphaned, her mother dying in 1837 and her father in 1841. From that time until the late 1840s, when she came to live in Amherst with her sister Harriet and brother-in-law William Cutler, Susan was reared by her aunt, Sophia Arms Van Vranken, in Geneva, New York, and attended Utica Female Academy in nearby Utica, New York. In 1853 she and Austin Dickinson were engaged, and then married July 1, 1856, in the Van Vranken home, "a quiet wedding," with "very few friends and [only Susan's] brothers & sisters, a little cake a little ice cream" (Leyda 1:342). Though the young couple contemplated moving West, to Michigan, where Susan's older brothers lived, Edward Dickinson insured their never leaving Amherst by making Austin a law partner and by building them a made-to-order house, the Evergreens, on a lot next door to the Homestead. Susan's generous dowry from her brothers helped to furnish the Evergreens, a showcase with oak sideboards, a green marble fireplace adorned with Canova's sculpture Cupid & Psyche, Gothic chairs, and Victorian paintings where the young wife-to-be imagined treating her brothers to "an oyster supper some cold night" (August 1855 letter). Susan and Austin had three children, Edward (Ned; born 1861), Martha (Mattie or Mopsy; born 1866), and Thomas Gilbert (Gib; born 1875). Both of her sons preceded Susan in death (Gib in 1883 and Ned in 1898).

Susan has been called the "most graceful woman in Western Massachusetts" (Bianchi q. Samuel Bowles, 149), "astute and cosmopolitan" (St. Armand 23), "The Power" increasingly given to "frivolity, snobbery, and ruthlessness" (Farr 110), a "sensitive editor" who was Emily's "most responsive reader" (Eberwein 44, 131), a "remarkably perceptive. . .mentor of some standing" who supposedly refused to edit Emily's poems for publication (Sewall 201; 219). By Emily Dickinson she was affectionately called "Dollie," and with unfailing admiration characterized as an "Avalanche of Sun," (H B188; OMC 228), a "breath from Gibraltar" uttering "impregnable syllables" (H B89; OMC 226), "Domingo" in spirit, and "Imagination" itself (H B51; OMC 233) whose words are of "Silver genealogy" (H B134; OMC 247). Susan and Emily Dickinson's forty-year relationship has by all accounts been seen as one of crucial importance, even by those who seem intent on calling Susan's character into question. A powerfully intellectual (she was a mathematician and math teacher in Baltimore in 1851-52), vivacious, charismatic, sometimes arrogant, often generous, acutely and astutely well-read woman and devoted mother, Susan Dickinson, her life stories, and their meanings for Emily Dickinson almost inevitably became sites of contestation in a culture with limited storylines for women, their accomplishments, and their contributions to the literary, artistic welfare of society.

However important the facts that her powerful personality has by and large not been well- handled by literary history, the scripts of which are unequipped to accommodate such force in a female figure, what is most important about Susan Dickinson and her life's decades-long entanglement with Emily Dickinson is what can be learned from Susan's writing and reading about the compositional, epistolary, and poetic practices Emily knew, participated in, and appropriated for her own artistic reckoning with the world. Dickinson herself characterized their relationship in literary terms--comparing her love for Susan to Dante's love for Beatrice, Swift's for Stella, and Mirabeau's for Sophie de Ruffey (H B95; OMC 165), and comparing her tutelage with Susan to one with Shakespeare (OMC 229). Clearly, she valued Sue's opinions about writing and reading, and both women shared an affective theory of poetry. Of "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers," Sue wrote that the first verse is so compelling that "I always go to the fire and get warm after thinking of it, but I never can again" (H B74b; OMC 61); a few years later, Thomas Higginson paraphrased Emily's critical commentary, echoing Sue's "If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. . ." (JL342a).

In a December 1890 letter to Higginson, Susan compared her relationship with Emily and the lifetime of writing exchanged between them to a relationship that was written up in Goethe's Correspondence with a Child (incorporated into the volume at his request), the intense dynamic of poet Karoline von Gunderode's correspondence with writer Bettina von Arnim, whose Gunderode Margaret Fuller translated into English. Underscoring their relationship's literary, intellectual nature, as well as the intensity of their emotional entanglement, Susan proceeds to speak with quiet but unassailable authority about his and Mabel Loomis Todd's editing of Emily's poems. Making clear that she is thoroughly acquainted with Emily's poetic corpus, Susan approves of most of the titles used in the 1890 Poems by Emily Dickinson and, in a January 4, 1891 letter corrects "a blunder (of the printer I suppose)," "afar" to "ajar" in "I know some lonely Houses / off the Road" (F 13; JP289; FP 311). Higginson took Susan's suggestion and in subsequent editions the word was changed.

From the distance of a century and after study of Dickinson and her works has become an industry, we cannot help but approach this relationship with the assumption that Emily was the writer and Sue the reader, always. Yet Sue wrote essays, reviews, journals, poems, letters, and memorials constantly throughout her life and produced commonplace books and scrapbooks of her own publications in the Springfield Republican, as well as of clippings about admired figures such as Queen Victoria, and of favorite poems, essays, and stories of other writers, including Emily. Early on Dickinson enthuses over "Susie" keeping a journal, exclaiming that she wants "to get it bound - at my expense" (H L18; OMC 7, April 1852), and among the papers found in the Evergreens is a journal Susan kept of a trip to Europe in the early 1900s, when she was seventy- five years old. As an elderly traveller and inveterate writer, Susan visited Paris, Nice, Cologne, Zurich, Verona, Venice, Florence, Rome, the Hague, and London, revelling in the architectural majesty of church buildings and in the sublime beauty of the "Alpine peaks snow tipped. . .all so wholesome after Paris" and taking care to record her observations and encounters with acquaintances new and old, usually in a literary or poetical vein. On the ship returning home, her journal entries compare "layers of clouds" to the "White Alps pointing upward."

Besides apparently keeping journals throughout her life, Susan published several stories in the Springfield Republican "A Hole in Haute Society" (August 2, 1908), "The Passing of Zoroaster" (March 1910), "The Circus Eighty Years Ago" (early 1900s), and possibly "The Case of the Brannigans" (though this may be by her daughter, Martha). In January 1903, writing from Rome, Susan published a lengthy review of "Harriet Prescott's [Spofford] Early Work" as a letter to the editor of the Republican. Arguing for republication of Spofford's early work, she quotes "my sister-in-law, Emily Dickinson" as an authority, reiterating the latter's delighted reader's response "That is the only thing I ever saw in my life I did not think I could have written myself. You stand nearer the world than I do. Send me everything she writes" and quoting Dickinson's declaration, "for love is stronger than death," in her own critique of Prescott's "Circumstance." In "Annals of the Evergreens," a typescript that was not published until the 1980s, Susan praises Prescott's "Pomegranate Flowers" at the outset, then proceeds to describe an Evergreens life rich in cultural exchange, reading the Brownings, Thomas de Quincey, Julia Ward Howe, Thomas Carlyle, and Shakespeare, and entertaining many distinguished visitors Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, abolitionist Wendell Phillips, landscape designer Frederick Olmsted. Personalities more intimately associated with the Dickinson circle also grace these pages as Susan relates luscious accounts of lunches with "fresh asparagus" and "salad from our own garden" and dinners of "very nice lamb and strawberries" with editor Samuel Bowles, his wife Mary, friend Maria Whitney, Josiah and Elizabeth Holland, and Judge Otis P. Lord, whose recital of a hymn complemented by "a most remarkable artistic performance" by Vinnie "Annals" recounts fondly.

Among Susan's surviving papers are hundreds and hundreds of letters which show her to be a most attentive mother and friend, numerous essays on subjects as diverse as the valiant work of nurses and the art of architecture, reviews of "Autumn's Divine Beauty Begins" (an essay celebrating the season printed in the Republican) and of the work of Arthur Sherburne Hardy's Wind of Destiny, which she finds most "refreshing" because "it does not presuppose idiocy in the reader but makes a little demand upon a moderate equipment of mind and imagination" (a remark which just as well characterizes her appreciation as Emily's most staunch contemporary audience). Besides collecting paeans to Queen Victoria, Susan's own writings honor strong pioneering women. Her memoir of Elizabeth Blackwell (the first female doctor in the United States, known not only for her medical practice but also for working to open the profession to women), relates how "of course women deplored" this intellectual female working out of her sphere but speaks of her with great admiration and within the context of Susan's own quest for knowledge, a lifelong journey to which her thousands of books attest.

Her surviving writings witness her care and passion for the word drafts of essays and poems show careful searching for the most effective vocabulary and syntax. Among several poems among Susan's papers are typescript and ink drafts, with pencil revisions, of "What offering have I dear Lord," the poem included in "Annals." That she did not regard the printed word as final is obvious from the fact that several clippings of her own work placed in a scrapbook show her revising after their appearance in the Republican. That she was confident of her intellectual abilities and critical acumen is apparent from the fact that Susan corresponded about such matters not only with Higginson and Bowles, but also with other leading editors of the day. Among her letters are several to William Hayes Ward, editor of the Independent, about publishing Emily's poems, particularly "Through the Straight Pass / of Suffering" (F 36; JP792; FP 187), and her scrapbooks show that in March 1902 she sent W.C. Brownell a favorable review of his Victorian Prose Masters and received a most warm reply. Significantly, "Annals of the Evergreens" parallels the trajectories of the correspondence, revealing that her role was more than that of a social leader who entertained prominent guests, for she was clearly a most capable conversationalist who held her own with Emerson and was known by many for her ability to handle the most difficult, "hard reading" (Leyda 2:78). By the time of Amherst College's 1877 commencement, Bowles wanted to honor Susan's intellect and social dexterity with an honorary degree.

Besides publishing critical pieces and stories, Susan published at least one poem, "Love's Reckoning," in the Republican, and wrote quite a few others: "One asked, when was the grief?" "I'm waiting but she comes not back," "The days when smiles over tears will prevail," "When death with his white fingers," "There are three months of the Spring," "Hyssop," "Amor," "Of June, and her belongings," "Irony" (or "Crushed before the Moth"), "Minstrel of the Passing Days," and "Valentines Day" (H Box 9). Drafts of her "Oh" and "A Dirge" ("Feb/95") are recorded in her Florentine commonplace book. Though more conventional in form than Emily's, Susan's poems attend to many of the same subjects "There are three months of the Spring" distinctly echoes both "These are the days when Birds come back" (F 6; OMC 25) and "The Crickets / sang / And set the / Sun" (H 325; Set 6c; OMC 122), and "The Sun kept low as an oven" recalls the "Stooping as low as the / kitchen window - " of "Blazing in Gold - and / Quenching - in Purple!" (F 13; OMC 68) and "The sun kept stooping - stooping - low" (F 8; OMC 52). Their correspondence was a creative and literary wellspring for Susan as well as for Emily. On Susan's copy of "The Crickets / sang / And Set the / Sun" are several lines of Susan's response to Emily's work, recounting a few lines from Milton's "Comus":

  I was all ear
And took in strains that
  might create a seal
Under the ribs of death

Where Milton had written "create a soul," Susan wrote "create a seal," perhaps because she was recalling the lines from memory or revising them a bit. And, upside down, Susan added a few lines from Scott's Redgauntlet:

Despair is treason
  toward man
And blasphemy
  to Heaven.

By folks who knew her as intimately as Lavinia, her sister-in-law a little more than two years younger, Susan has been roundly criticized for not seeing Emily's poems into print with good speed. Indeed, this is an important part of her story as it bears on study of Dickinson. By her own account in the aforementioned 1890 letter to Higginson, Susan describes how she had imagined a volume of Emily's writings with "many bits of her prose passages from early letters quite surpassing the correspondence of Gunderodi[e] with Bettine quaint bits to my children &c &c. Of course I should have forestalled criticism by only printing them." In a March 1891 letter to Ward, she elaborates her vision for such a volume which would also include Emily's "illustrations," "showing her witty humorous side, which has all been left out of" the 1890 Poems. Susan describes a much more holistic volume than the epitome of the late nineteenth-century poetry book produced by Higginson and Todd. Hers would have been filled with drawings and jokes as well as profound lyrics, and her outline for the production shows that she would not have divided the poems into the conventional categories of "Life," "Love," "Time and Eternity," and "Nature" but would have emphasized poetry's integration with quotidian experience, Emily's intellectual prowess, and her philosophical interrogations of the spiritual, corporeal, emotional, and mental realms. Her critiques of the printed volumes and descriptions of how she would have managed preparing a production performance of Emily's writings for "Auction" (JP 709; FP 788) to the world are, for late twentieth-century readers immured in mechanical and high-tech images of print and screen, avenues into the nineteenth-century manuscript culture of literary exchange in which Susan and Emily were constant participants.

Among Susan's papers are fascicles of favorite poems that both she and her sister Martha copied out sometime in the 1850s. Rooted in a culture where modes of literary exchange frequently included sending consolation poems, and making fascicles of favorite poems, as well as commonplace books, and scrapbooks of treasured literary pieces, Dickinson's fascicle assembly of her own poems and distribution of her own poems in epistolary contexts are anything but eccentric. Both Emily and Susan were careful to distinguish between the often synonymously used terms "publish" and "print." When Emily guesses that Higginson may have seen "A narrow Fellow in / the Grass" (Set 6c; JP 986; FP 1096) in the Republican, she did not say, "I had told you I did not publish"; she said "I had told you I did not print" (BPL Higg 52; L 265). Susan is equally precise writing editor Ward, "I shall not be annoyed if you decide not to publish at all. I should have said printed" (H Lowell Autograph; Smith 11-15). The distinction these two women writers draw between the terms is, as is Susan's description of what her volume of Emily's writings would have featured, a sign of the literary culture in which their works were so deeply embedded, a literary culture of vital manuscript exchange in which even printed works were recirculated in holograph form. This manuscript culture that Emily and Susan knew so well and in which each practiced as writers is one about which late twentieth-century literary history tends to have amnesia. Had Susan produced a volume modelled on the practices of this culture for the world at large, Dickinson's readers would have had a much broader sense of the range of Emily's writings from the beginning, and would have had a much stronger sense of the manuscript culture in which Emily Dickinson's poetic project was far from an aberration. Instead of remaking Emily's writings to fit the contours, categories, and poetic forms driven by the machine of the printed book, Susan's volume would have been oriented and shaped by those hand-fashioned modes of literary exchange and opened up a sense of that nineteenth-century literary world practically lost to twentieth-century readers.

As is evident from many of Susan's titles, from her journal entries, and from the subjects of her reviews, a profound love and deep appreciation for nature pervades her sensibilities, and she clearly favors art focused on the natural world's splendors, on the "Eden, always eligible" (JL391). In the Evergreens, John F. Kensett's "Sunset with Cows" (1856) bears Susan's name on the back, a witness to her love not only of nature but of artistic responses to it. Several of her manuscript poems--"Fresher than dawn," "The robins choose to-day," "Amor," "Of June, and her belongings"--likewise witness her deep and abiding love for nature, as does her review essay, "Autumn's Divine Beauty Begins." Her regard for nature is intense enough to be characterized as religious or spiritual, and Susan was indeed devoutly religious from her late teens and throughout her adulthood. Late in her life, Susan turned more and more to the rituals of High Church and even pondered becoming a Roman Catholic, but was dissuaded by Bishop F. Dan Huntington, "who himself had abandoned Harvard Unitarianism to don the sacerdotal robes of American Anglicanism" (St. Armand 84). Yet her religious devotions were far more than ceremonial, for Susan spent almost every Sabbath for six years in the 1880s establishing a Sunday school in Logtown, a poor village not far from Amherst.

Susan's enactment of simple ritual for profound utterance is perhaps best displayed in the simple flannel robe she designed and in which she dressed Emily for death, laying her out in a white casket, cypripedium and violets (symbolizing faithfulness) at her neck, two heliotropes (symbolizing devotion) in her hand (St. Armand 74-75). This final act over Emily's body underscores "their shared life, their deep and complex intimacy" and that they both anticipated a "postmortem resurrection" of that intimacy (Hart 255; Pollak 137). Besides swaddling her beloved friend's body for burial, Susan penned Emily's obituary, a loving portrayal of a strong, brilliant woman, devoted to family and to her neighbors, and to her writing, for which she had the most serious objectives and highest ambitions. Though "weary and sick" at the loss of her dearest friend, Susan produced a piece so powerful that Higginson wanted to use it as the introduction to the 1890 Poems (indeed, it did serve as the outline for Todd's introduction to the second volume of Poems in 1891; Smith 207-208). Susan concludes the obituary pointing readers' attentions to Emily as writer, and to the fact that her words would live on. Among her daughter Martha's papers is evidence that these same four lines were used again in a Dickinson ceremony, perhaps to conclude Susan's own funeral:

Morns like these we parted;
Noons like these she rose,
Fluttering first, then firmer,
To her fair repose.

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Transcription and commentary copyright 1998 by Martha Nell Smith,
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Last updated on January 10, 2008

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